At 4:34 a.m. Cairo time on March 20, 2003, coalition forces led by the United States began their invasion of Iraq. Less than six hours later security lines in Cairo’s Tahrir Square were being overrun by the most unlikely protesters: students of the American University in Cairo. Egyptian opposition parties had called for a protest at one o’clock in Tahrir, but three hours earlier 1,000 students had taken the initiative, surprised security forces, and managed to reach the square. The smell of euphoria was in the air as the students set their gaze on a building a few blocks from the square, that symbolized US hegemony over their country, the fortified US Embassy.
The mass of people did not hesitate as they attacked line after line of security forces trying to break through, their attacks bearing fruit. They reached Omar Makram Mosque and then set foot on Simon Bolivar Square. “Tell Bush, tell Blair . . . Iraq is not Afghanistan,” they shouted. There their attacks fell short; the security forces were better organized, and they could not break their lines no matter how much they tried. Some fell on the sides, their faces covered in blood; they were carried by their comrades. Half the protesters managed to reach the street leading to the Nile Corniche. Bringing traffic to a halt, they broke for freedom and tried to surround the British Embassy. They failed to encircle it, and two hours later they returned and joined their comrades in Simon Bolivar Square. They made a last attack and broke security lines back to Tahrir Square.
Opposition activists had arrived by then. Thousands were now in the square. They would attempt several times to reach the US Embassy but be rebuffed. Circles were forming in the square, graffiti was being drawn on the asphalt, and people were singing. Magda El-Roumi’s famous song “The Street Is Ours” could be heard in the square. Voices chanting, “the street is ours . . . the square is ours . . . tomorrow Egypt will be ours.” That generation of Egyptians had never seen anything like it. Egypt had not seen anything like this since the bread riots of 1977. The next day demonstrators started in Al-Azhar Mosque and took over the square again. Clashes continued throughout the day, and a fire truck used to disperse the crowds was reportedly set on fire. In the following days police arrested numerous activists of all political stripes. What remained of the crowd’s spirit died twenty days later as they saw on TV Iraqis bring down Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad. The honor and dignity of a nation stretching from the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean was lost in the streets of Baghdad.
The gods must have been rolling the dice that day on March 20, 2003. Little did the protesters in Tahrir Square know they were writing the first line in the story of the Egyptian revolution.
That Egypt’s revolution has failed is hardly disputable today. The excitement of those magical eighteen days in Tahrir Square and the hopes of a dawn of democracy in Egypt are long gone. Replacing them is widespread despair among Egypt’s revolutionary activists and their international cheerleaders, and who would blame them? The man they sought to topple enjoys his freedom after two years in prison, the old faces of his regime are now back, and the revolutionary activists—those who are not cheering the very military they were chanting against two years earlier—are now among the jailed, the cursed, the emigrant, and the depressed.
It is true some still believe the revolution continues or, more fancifully, the ouster of Mohamed Morsi is but the second wave of the original revolution. Joining the ranks of the delusional is the American Secretary of State John Kerry, who suggested the revolution was “stolen” by the Muslim Brotherhood, with Egypt now apparently set on the right path to democracy. But outside of those few voices—and regardless of whether one believes that Egypt is witnessing a counterrevolution, as the author contends, or a coup, or that no revolution occurred in the first place, as Hugh Roberts argues in the pages of the London Review of Books—the general consensus is that Egypt has returned to an authoritarian grip albeit this time with the masses cheering along. Whatever happened on January 25 failed miserably in transforming the country in the direction of a true democracy.
For those lamenting the failure of a revolution that captivated the world, the blame is usually placed on two forces: Egypt’s military and the Muslim Brotherhood. A military that never accepted the notion of civilian control and that aimed to protect its exclusive domination of the state and its economy and a Brotherhood that ruled in a noninclusive manner and alienated many segments of Egypt’s population have formed the basis of the explanations given by analysts as to why Egypt reached the state it is in today.
Remarkably little attention has been given to the actions and choices of Egypt’s non-Islamist revolutionaries. Besides the usual criticism of their organizational weakness and the more recent critical look at those among them who supported the military coup, they have largely escaped any critical examination and hence blame. This is all the more surprising given the fact that three years earlier, when the crowds occupied Tahrir Square, both the media and Western analysts fixed their gazes on those young men and women, often described as liberals, democrats, moderates, and secular, to the extent of seeing nothing but them. Egypt’s revolutionaries were hailed as the heroic force that ended what seemed like an eternal dichotomy between repressive authoritarian regimes and totalitarian Islamists. People like Google executive Wael Ghonim, April 6 founder Ahmed Maher, and international diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei would create the much-awaited third alternative or route.
On January 25, 2011, thousands of Egyptians—some of them veterans of earlier demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak, some of them demonstrating for the first time in their lives—took to the streets to demand change. Three days later hundreds of thousands joined them, and fifteen days later Mubarak resigned as Egypt’s president. Who were those revolutionaries and where did they come from? What was their composition ideologically and organizationally? Why were they angry with the Mubarak regime and decided to bring it down? What were their demands and aspirations for a new Egypt? And how did they go about attempting to achieve them? To understand the story of Egypt’s revolution, one has to begin, not on January 25, 2011, but years earlier when those revolutionaries were meeting one another for the first time and acquiring the skills that they would later use to bring down the regime.
The lack of a thorough investigation of Egypt’s revolutionaries creates a serious gap in our understanding of the events that unfolded in the past three years. From their decision to call for mass demonstrations on January 25, 2011, their rejection of participating in politics, their calls for an end to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) rule, their continuous demonstrations and violent clashes with the police, and the choices they made in the parliamentary and presidential elections, Egypt’s revolutionaries were not helpless victims but actors who affected and shaped the direction of the country. As Egypt continues on its destructive path into the abyss, it is important to examine what role the revolutionaries played in its trajectory.
During the magical eighteen days of Tahrir Square, and while the revolution was still in its honeymoon, Amr Bargisi, one of Egypt’s most astute observers, said: “Egypt lacks the sort of political culture that can sustain a liberal democracy.”
The reason for his pessimism was not that he thought Egyptians are inferior to other peoples or that Egypt “seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients,” as David Brooks wrote.
His pessimism was grounded in a simple fact of life. You cannot achieve a result if there is no one trying to achieve it. A liberal democracy is not born out of thin air. It requires the existence of liberal democrats. And if the term means something more than people who are simply not Islamists and not extreme leftists, then they are absent in Egyptian politics. There are very few liberals in Egypt, not because Egyptians are averse to liberalism or are different from any other people, but because there is no liberalism in Egypt. There is no liberal discourse in the public square. People cannot belong to an ideology that does not exist. With hardly any liberal books written in Arabic and no translations of the major works of Western liberalism, those liberals in Egypt are but a privileged few who are able and willing to read in a foreign language.
Today, Egypt’s former revolutionaries are split between the submissive and the delusional, between those who have become no more than cheerleaders for a military coup and those who continue to dream of an endless revolution—or, as Leszek Kolakowski once remarked, “between lovers of prostitutes and lovers of clouds: those who know only the satisfaction of the moment . . . and those who lose themselves in otiose imaginings.”
It is easy to mistake them for helpless victims, men caught like Oedipus in a tragedy they cannot control. Greek tragedies, however, have little to offer in understanding the story of the Egyptian revolution and its failure, but perhaps another Greek contribution to civilization might be better suited for the task—Greek mythology. Unless they begin to learn from their mistakes, unless they embark on a journey of discovering their own country, unless they educate themselves not on the newest technology but on the oldest books, unless they start offering their countrymen something more than abstract principles, they are forever doomed, like Sisyphus, condemned eternally to repeatedly roll a heavy rock up a hill only to have it roll down again as it nears the top. An eternity of fruitless labor and endless disappointment.
Today, after the revolution and its hopes and disappointments, Egypt finds itself in a world it knows all too well—faith in the deliverance offered by one man. The hope is now invested in a military commander, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. It is dictatorship by demand, as it were. The country has been here before. For two decades, from 1954 to 1970, Gamal Abdel Nasser gave Egypt its moment of enthusiasm and then led it to defeat and heartbreak. It would take a leap of faith, and luck beyond what history offers, to believe that this faith in a redeemer will yield a better harvest than the one before it.
Throughout the previous three years and during the turmoil that shook Egypt to its core, I was in endless conversation with a small group of Egyptian liberals who cared deeply for their country. The three years would not have been the same without them; this article would not have been the same without their endless comments and opinions throughout that period. I am forever indebted to them.